Kelly Giard walks into a bar and starts asking questions about lawn mowers. That's no joke: Giard’s Clean Air Lawn Care may be kind of a funny story, but one that’s gotten serious results in the three years since it started. It's the country’s largest environmentally-friendly lawn care service, with franchises in 27 territories across the U.S. from Seattle to to Raleigh. Revenues increased 100 percent this year and Giard expects that growth rate to continue over the next five years.
But let's get back to that bar. Giard once owned a franchise where he cultivated a different sort of green, the kind in clients’ investment portfolios. He was in the market for a mower, which led to the informal poll at his local watering hole—and the founding of a new business. Giard started Clean Air Lawn Care out of his garage and, despite a late-in-the-season start in 2006, quickly grew the business using a franchise model that he’d come to appreciate in his work as a financial planner.
It's not a huge surprise that Giard, who earned a BA in Environmental Analysis and Policy from Boston University, wanted to find green replacements for the chemicals and air pollution produced by traditional lawn maintenance. But mostly, says the veteran stockbroker, "I was bored and searching for fun."
Giard's electric mowing equipment is powered by wind energy (overnight) and solar panels mounted on trucks (during the day). Convincing homeowners that his equipment is superior to gas guzzling, cloud spewing mowers wasn't all that hard. Along with organic fertilization and weed control, Clean Air uses tarps and rakes instead of loud leaf blowers. "You can be in your back yard when our trucks show up and we’ll be working in the front and you won’t know we’re there," says Giard.
But like anything green and growing, Clean Air Lawn Care needed careful planning, constant care and cultivation to grow into the thriving business it is today. Here’s what Giard has to say about his green thumb.
The best fertilizer: "When you share capital risk it is easy to grow. Franchising keeps ownership local and the profits in the area. It has lots of qualities that align with the principles of our business and the niche we are in."
Same species: "Relationships with franchise owners are similar to that of a financial planner and their client. It’s a long term relationship with a lot at stake."
Filling holes in the landscape: "We were filling a need with our business, but the green movement hadn’t really taken off yet, so we couldn’t just hop on board the bus. I thought it might be a once-in-a-lifetime shot to do something major and it took over my life."
Crab grass: "I’ve had guys quit because they are frustrated with the equipment. It is tempting in May, when it’s been raining a lot and the grass is growing long, to switch to gas mowers. And we looked bad in the customers’ eyes [if we couldn’t get the job done]. The equipment is 90 percent of the way there now and I think we are benefiting from the culture and character of the company."
Drought: "The business always had great momentum, but in 2009 when the economy went down, we lost it. I got conservative. It took a while to build it back into company and our culture. I did it by addressing that I screwed up."
Hired hands: "I had my hands in everything in the last two years, and I started letting go and blindly trusting people in order to scale the business. It’s difficult but really cool when it works. We are trying to pattern ourselves after companies like Patagonia and find people that are philosophically committed to what we do."
Worms: "We are trying to start a compost division. Food and yard waste in our area amounts to 30 percent of what goes to the landfill. We can use it for our treatment programs and it reduces transport costs and fuel. Most investors think I’m nuts eyes when I start talking about red wiggler worms and top dressing until I explain the cost benefit. We still need to figure out how to close the loop in a cost-effective way with city and county zoning. I need to learn a lot more about worms or hire someone to be a worm whisperer."
Stopping to smell the flowers: "The smell, the sweat, the pattern invites you to pause and enjoy. Maybe it spurs an unnecessary pass through the yard to dwell in the pride of your work. It’s immediate positive feedback, better than any boss could give."
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